Thursday, December 10, 2009

Eastport Residents To Offer Solutions To Budget

Eastport has always been special....sort of like when you are at a family gathering and realize the need to turn to your child and say "Little Suzie, just ignore Uncle Ralph--he's special".  You may remember such groups as 'Eastporters Against Gunshots", "Annapolitans United Against Crime", and most recently "Eastporters With Big Expensive Houses Against Another Eastport Resident With A Particularly Big and Expensive House".

What you may not know is that Eastport residents have long been active in community affairs.  Here is a partial list of some of their lesser known causes:

1517-Eastport residents give Ferdinand Magellan 1 end of a long rope in advance of his circumnavigation of the world.  Already knowing the world was flat and not round from their Wednesday Night Armada Races, Eastporters wanted to have a tug-of-war with New Zealand for ultimate nautical bragging rights.

1691-Eastport Witches For Home Cooking forms to combat the spread of restaurants.  (The first restaurant wasn't really recognized until the mid 18th century but the Salem witchcraft trials were in 1692 so just pretend the Eastport witches could predict the future).  Starting on the ground that now houses Rockfish, the women cast a spell that prevents any restaurant from being successful.  Fortunately for us foodies, before the witches could move down Chesapeake Ave (then known as the Chesapeake Brownish/Red Dirt and Rocks Path), they were burned at the stake by members of the Franyo and DeCastro families.

1861-Inspired by the Confederacy, this is when the first attempts to secede from Annapolis are traced to.  With land supply routes owned by the enemy and after decades of brutal Harbormaster regimes, radicals are relegated to "storming City Hall" once per year, followed by 72 consecutive hours of drinking at Davis' Pub.

Late Twentieth Century-The Chart House Restaurant replaces the old Trumpy Boat Yard.  (Remember, the witches didn't get down that far.)  Soon thereafter, the Eastport Civic Association is formed.  The mutual support of the neighbors allowed them to dine at a restaurant that represents the decline of the Maritime Industry while simultaneously complaining about the decline of the Maritime Industry.

In any case, Eastport has a cause once more, and this is a good one--budget reduction / tax increase prevention.  I have obtained an advance* copy of the letter they plan to present this Monday at the City Council meeting**.

(*I say 'advance' to make myself sound awesome, but for all I know this letter could have been printed 2 weeks ago.)

(**I will be at that meeting live blogging.)

We will be using the tried-and-true 'letter to the editor format', where their ideas are listed in bold and my commentary is in normal font.  Ward 8 unites!


1) Eliminate Contract Employees (Savings - $4.0 million):  Contract employees have mushroomed into a political patronage system.  As the Blue Ribbon Commission pointed out, this practice should be stopped until the City Council develops proper guidelines and oversight for this method of providing city services.

Ok....$4 million is a big nut, as they say.  Contract employees are really bad when you have a cunning person that uses them for patronage, as they allege and as is true.  However, contract employees are easier to fire and their benefits aren't determined by the union contract.  So IF we get the better oversight, contract workers can actually be more beneficial than municipal employees.  The financial horror of all horrors for the past 8 years was that the vague "contractual services" budgets for many departments were spent on contractual workers, only see see many resolutions aiming to convert those contract positions into full municipal jobs.  Certainly that has to stop, and until the process has its checks and balances, I agree with this suggestion.

2) Consolidate 18 Departments into 6 (Saving $3.0 million):  Given the six figure salaries for many Department Heads, and the cost of associated staff, City Department should be focused on our most immediate priorities.  Also consider consolidating the City and County fire departments into one unit.

Absolutely beautiful work by those drunk sailors.  Just kidding.  About the sailor part.  For an outsider looking to do business in the city, there are at least 4 places that can claim to be the "go-to" source for permit information: DNEP, Economic Affairs, Planning and Zoning, and Special Project Coordinator.  The redundancies are glaring and there is no doubt in my mind that departments started to reward the Mayor's friends turned into running jokes about how much money could be spent without providing any benefit.

3) Eliminate City Grant Program (Savings - $0.5 million):  We can all see some benefit in charitable giving, but the City simply doesn’t have money to be giving away.  Additionally, there is little accountability for how these tax dollars are being used.  Leaving charity to the private sector will allow the citizens to realize the tax deductibility of giving, and restore control how their money is spent.

This issue has been hotly debated and probably needs more attention than the 5 sentences I'm about to give it.  I think everyone agreed that there was too much dependence on the city for funds.  Alderman Stankivic introduced a bill (which I believe passed) requiring non-profits receiving city money to prove they raised a certain portion of private money.  The ironic problem is that a lot of private money often times has the requirement that non-profits get public money, because they take it as a sign that the government somehow approves of the work.  The next problem is that non-profits want money from more than 1 government.  An NP getting 90% of its money from the state might need the other 10% from the city to get the 90%, and if the city totally closes the coffers, they would be screwed.  For the private sector charitable giving to really produce the right incentives, the state and federal coffers would have to be closed as well.  Good luck.  And the last problem is that many people don't want to see the effective charities denied money, perhaps even in our current budget situation.  Even as a mean emotionless Republican I don't know if I would favor totally eliminating the grant program.  But I don't have a better solution either.

Ok, turned out to be 9 more sentences (plus the phrase "good luck").

4) Cut Non-essential Programs (Savings – TBD):  Things like the Sister City Program, Sea Level studies and such come to mind.  In a period of financial crisis, all the “nice to do” stuff must be set aside.

Goes without saying.  The challenge will be Josh and the council's interpretation of "essential".  Even so, all these types of programs probably account for half a percent of the total budget.

5) Audit the Transportation Department (Savings - $1.0 million): The overtime expenditures for many departments is spiraling out of control.  The Transportation Department, however, appears to be the primary culprit.

The poor transportation department has the dubious honor of being the only department singled out by EAT (Eastporters Against Things), and for good reason.  The transportation department reminds me of when I put a $3000 non-refundable deposit on an office space I never used, then leased an office for 3 years that COST me money instead of MAKING me money because I had to hire another manager and extra delivery driver, nearly bankrupting the company that has since afforded me the opportunity to buy the computer I'm using to write this post.  In other words: poor management.  There will always be overtime for police and fire because their union contracts say that OT is required for holidays, plus you never know when there's going to be a crime or a fire.  But for the transportation department--supposedly the king of schedules--to have a schedule so poor as to rack up millions in OT....fully support this "audit".

6) Outsource New Recreation Center to YMCA (Savings - $0.5 million):  As you may be aware, we have a new multi-million dollar Rec Center, but there’s no money in the budget to operate it.  A possible partnership with the YMCA might offer an opportunity to recover from this expensive budget omission.

No real plan here other than to explore a "possible partnership".  But, as I remember, this is the new headquarters for the Parks and Recreation Department.  It seems silly to have Parks and Rec employees there already and have to hire someone else to run the building.  Unless the YMCA pays the city for using the building, which would be appropriate, I can't see how this would make all that much difference.  But I'm with them in spirit.

Now I will explain what the real deal is.

85% of the budget is salaries and benefits.  Reducing that cost is the only possible way to prevent tax increases.  EAT has good ideas, and consolidation of departments would go a long way.  Even so, Josh has the biggest opportunity with his upcoming union negotiation.  The union contracts come up every 4 years, conveniently, so that the incoming mayor can negotiate for themselves.  I distinctly remember being at Ram's Head, drinking a Copperhead Ale while Josh had a Miller Lite, listening him explain to me that the city has considerable negotiating power especially in tough times.  What they come up with is crucial.

The next thing to watch out for is fees.  Lowering taxes by raising fees is like paying off your credit card with a loan from the mafia.  Silly.  The enterprise funds (water, sewer, parking, etc., which generate the fees) are supposed to generate at least what it takes to administer the fund.  For example, parking fees should at least pay for the parking enforcement officers.  In practice this does not happen, and I wouldn't be surprised if your "taxes" didn't go up but the cost of a residential parking permit was $1,564.87.

And the last budget buster is the Capital budget.  For many people, the capital budget is a separate magical land where hundreds of millions of dollars of projects are planned, funded by bonds, executed, and done with.  Sadly, there is a connection between the general budget and the capital budget, and it's debt service on the bonds we issued to fund the magical projects.  This year, debt service is almost $6 million or 7% of the budget.  For you math majors, if 85% of the budget is for personnel, 7% goes to debt service, the city hall roof is falling, and the city dock water is rising, how many extra projects can you slip into the capital budget.  Answer: like negative $100 million worth.

Should be a good council meeting.